The insurance industry is intensifying efforts to influence the congressional debate over healthcare reform. The leading industry trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans will unveil a report today warning average family premiums will cost an additional $4,000 over current projections by 2019. The industry-funded study was carried out by the financial services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Nancy-Ann DeParle, director of the White House Office of Health Reform, responded, “Those guys specialize in tax shelters. Clearly this is not their area of expertise.” In threatening the higher costs, the industry is seeking to win stricter penalties that would force younger, healthier people into the insurance pool. The current health proposals would create millions of new insurance customers by imposing mandates. But industry lobbyists say their profits would be harmed because most new customers would be older and in poorer health in the absence of penalties to ensure younger, healthier Americans also purchase coverage. The Senate Finance Committee is set to vote tomorrow on Democratic Senator Max Baucus’s healthcare reform measure. The panel has already excluded a public insurance option from the legislation.
The United Nations is warning tens of millions of people are facing reduced or eliminated food rations in the coming weeks because the world’s wealthiest nations have drastically reduced aid. Speaking to The Observer of London, World Food Programme head Josette Sheeran says the agency will face at least a $2 billion shortfall by the end of the year. Under the Obama administration, the US has pledged $800 million less this year than it did under President Bush. Other nations have also reduced funding despite food prices rising in 80 percent of countries since last year. Sheeran said, “There is a silent tsunami [of hunger] gathering. You cannot see or hear it, but it’s in all these villages, killing people just as hard. This is the worst food crisis since the 1970s. We will lose a generation. Children will never recover.”
In Honduras, the coup regime has enacted a decree allowing it to close media outlets rather than revoking the measure as it had promised last week. Coup leaders have already shut down the opposition media outlets Channel 36 and Radio Globo. The measure threatens broadcasters with closure for airing reports that “attack national security.” On Saturday, police fired tear gas at hundreds of people rallying in support of the ousted President Manuel Zelaya.
Protester: “Here in Honduras, we will no longer put up with them beating us, with deaths and everything. We won’t put up with it anymore! We want these coup mongers out, for these soldiers not to beat us as if they didn’t also have mothers.”
The protests were held as Zelaya representatives continued to hold talks with the coup regime. Juan Barahona, a member of Zelaya’s delegation, said the negotiations had progressed, but not on the fundamental issue of Zelaya’s return.
Juan Barahona: “There has been some progress in the negotiations, in the discussion over an agreement. But I repeat, if there is no agreement in the main point — that is, Zelaya’s return — and when we get to that point, there is no progress, we go backwards again, until we’re back at nothing.”
In other news from Honduras, an independent UN panel is raising alarm over the use of foreign mercenaries since Zelaya’s ouster. The UN says it’s received reports the coup regime has hired more than 120 mercenaries from across Latin America. An estimated forty former Colombian paramilitaries have also been hired to guard wealthy Hondurans and their properties.
In Afghanistan, the head of the UN mission has admitted the August national elections were marred by “widespread fraud.” Kai Eide made the comments at a news conference in Kabul.
UN Special Envoy Kai Eide: “That’s been a difficult process. It’s been marred by so many problems, not least, as you know, widespread fraud. So it’s not been easy, but that has been my only focus, and it is important to bring this country through this process and to continue the process of of installing democracy in Afghanistan.”
Eide went on to defend his role in the election’s aftermath, rejecting accusations from a former deputy that he had helped cover up the fraud.
UN Special Envoy Kai Eide: “The allegations made against me by my former deputy have not only been personal attacks against me and my integrity, but they have been attacks that in fact have affected the entire election process.”
In Iraq, at least twenty-four Iraqis were killed and more than ninety wounded Sunday in several nationwide attacks. At least sixteen were killed in a coordinated bombing in the city of Ramadi.
In Pakistan, at least forty people have been killed in a suicide bombing near the northwestern Swat Valley. The attack comes two days after the Taliban claimed responsibility for a raid on Pakistani army headquarters. The Pakistani military is expected to launch another major offensive against the Taliban in the coming weeks.
In Somalia, local residents say several hundred Ethiopian troops crossed over the border this weekend, arresting dozens of villagers. The alleged raid would come months after Ethiopian forces ended a two-year occupation that began with a US-backed offensive.
In Israel and the Occupied Territories, rival Palestinian factions have delayed a proposed unity agreement for at least several weeks. The West Bank-based Fatah and the Gaza-based Hamas had been expected to sign an Egyptian-brokered deal to cooperate on rebuilding Gaza and hold new elections. But Fatah leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas drew widespread Palestinian opposition after agreeing to postpone a UN Human Rights Council vote on the Goldstone investigation into Israel’s assault on Gaza. The move reportedly came after heavy American and Israeli pressure. Hamas says it postponed the unity agreement in protest of Abbas’s stance.
In Iran, three opposition figures involved in the protests against the disputed national elections have been sentenced to death. The three are the first to receive death sentences since dozens of protesters and opposition members went on trial in August. The Iranian news agency says they’ll have the right to appeal.
Argentina has enacted a media reform bill aimed at undoing dictatorship-era rules that left a handful of companies in control of national broadcasting. The bill allocates two-thirds of the broadcast spectrum to non-commercial stations, limits the number of licenses any one company can hold, and promotes Argentine-made content. The bill was based on a proposal written by a coalition of Argentine community media, human rights groups, unions and progressive academics. President Cristina Fernandez quickly signed it into law following its approval by the Argentine Senate. Estela de Carlotto of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo was among thousands to celebrate outside Congress.
Estela de Carlotto: “Everyone will have the opportunity to have a form of communication for the dignity of the people. Culturally, it is good; the advancement of freedom of expression is good. Celebrating here, we are all together. The Grandmothers are a part of these people that never ever gave up.”
Back in the United States, President Obama has again pledged to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which bars openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military. Obama made the promise Saturday in a speech before the Human Rights Campaign.
President Obama: “We cannot afford to cut from our ranks people with the critical skills we need to fight, any more than we can afford for our military’s integrity to force those willing to do so into careers encumbered and compromised by having to live a lie. So I’m working with the Pentagon, its leadership, and the members of the House and Senate on ending this policy. Legislation has been introduced in the House to make this happen. I will end ’don’t ask, don’t tell.’ That’s my commitment to you.”
Obama has been criticized for not following through on previous vows to end “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In his latest comments, he did not offer any new timetable for its repeal.
The following day, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Washington to take part in the National Equality March for gay rights.
Protester: “It’s absolutely ridiculous that we have to work so hard to support this country and to be a part of this country and to pay and vote for this country that we should be a question of equality. And it’s just absurd. It’s absolutely absurd. It’s enough.”
Protester #2: “I’m discouraged, and I remain hopeful. I think that ’don’t ask, don’t tell’ should be repealed, but I think he should halt the expulsion of our armed service people who happen to be gay. He can do that now, and he doesn’t. He can halt that while Congress deliberates how to pass the law.”
President Obama greeted the news of his Nobel Peace Prize victory at the White House Friday, hours after the surprise decision was announced. Obama said he felt unworthy of the honor.
President Obama: “I am both surprised and deeply humbled by the decision of the Nobel Committee. Let me be clear: I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations. To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize, men and women who’ve inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.”
Obama was honored despite continuing the Iraq war and escalating the US occupation of Afghanistan. He is expected to travel to Oslo, Norway to accept the award later this year. In the Occupied Territories, a Gaza resident criticized the award in light of Obama’s continued support for the Israeli government.
Gaza Resident: “I am very surprised that a person who, to this day, has not done anything will get this award. We were hoping that (Obama) would support the Palestinian people, especially after the destructive war on the Gaza Strip and the grave suffering that ensued.”
In Colorado, a couple in the town of Grand Junction has revealed they can’t obtain health coverage for their four-month-old baby son because insurance companies say he is too overweight. Bernie and Kelli Lange were told last week their son Alex can’t be insured because he is in the 99th percentile for height and weight for babies his age. The Langes said they tried to obtain coverage with Rocky Mountain Health Plans but were told: “Your baby is too fat.” Bernie Lange said, “My gripe is not with Rocky Mountain. It’s with the general state of the health care system.”
In Indiana, an Iraq war veteran has been charged with attempted murder after allegedly opening fire on police. Police say Andrew Ward fired on three officers on Friday night. No one was harmed. Relatives say Ward was discharged last month and has been seeking disability benefits for anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Obama administration is pushing back against finance industry opposition to its proposal for a new consumer protection agency. The White House wants to establish the agency to monitor the products that banks and other institutions sell to consumers, including subprime loans. The finance industry has spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying and advertisements trying to derail the proposal. Speaking at the White House on Friday, President Obama criticized the finance industry opposition.
President Obama: “All this hasn’t stopped the big financial firms and their lobbyists from mobilizing against change. They’re doing what they always do: descending on Congress, using every bit of influence they have to maintain the status quo — that is, maximize their profits at the expense of American consumers, despite the fact that recently a whole bunch of those same American consumers bailed them out as a consequence of the bad decisions that they made.”
And three of the five jailed Cuban nationals known as the Cuban Five are up for re-sentencing beginning this week. The five men were convicted in 2001 for spying on the US military and Cuban exiles in southern Florida. All five are serving time in federal prisons across the country. The men say they weren’t spying on the US, but trying to monitor violent right-wing Cuban exile groups that have organized attacks on Cuba. The Cuban Five trial was the only judicial proceeding in US history condemned by the UN Human Rights Commission. Last week, Cuban Five prisoner Antonio Guerrero reached an agreement with prosecutors that will reduce his sentence to twenty years from an original life imprisonment. Guerrero will appear before a judge for sentencing on Tuesday.